I’ve done a lot of food foraging in my time but it’s usually of the domestic variety. You know, my mothers’ freezer or pantry. So I was a little surprised to recently find myself bent over double, holding a knife in one hand, and a gigantic green weed in the other. It was Saturday morning and my mother and I were in a local park.
“You are always asking. Now you know,” said my mother. “This is chicory.”
Now I’m a sucker for the romantic notion of living off the land, preferably on a hill top villa in Tuscany. I’ve read the good life abroad memoirs. I know that every afternoon is one long feast of seasonal food, freshly gathered, drizzled in the local olive oil and enjoyed with a bottle of home made wine. So it is true that I’ve often asked my mother what it was like to live in Sicily, after the war, gathering wild greens and dancing in the fields. But I wasn’t expecting to find the good life so close to home, not in a park in south west Sydney anyway. And not on a Saturday morning, when anyone walking past could see us. And anyway, these weren’t wild greens, they’re common ‘wet the beds’. Everyone, including your average hound, knows these things grow on the side of the road all over the place. This certainly wasn’t turning out to be A Year in Provence.
“With your hand you hold the plant,” my mother instructed. “With the knife you cut under the root.”
Nonetheless the anarchist hippie in me began to stir at the smell of free food. So I got over the potential for embarrassment, and dog poo, and began to dig, wielding my knife in such a way as to make my peasant ancestors proud. Armed with my own plastic bag I began to feel quite chuffed as between us we harvested a whole sidewalk.
As I dug I mused about the urban foraging / eat local / self sufficiency craze that has swept Sydney recently. People are regularly popping off the grid to live more sustainably. Men and women nowhere near pension age are preserving plums left, right and centre; and there are fancy chefs all over town harvesting wild greens to serve with their smoked pork belly. Or so the newspapers tell me.
Just as I was beginning to enjoy this authentic experience, made particularly so by the fact that my back was aching, I heard a voice asking if these weeds were edible. I straightened up. A man was standing next to us watching curiously.
I was about to say, “Yes! It’s wild chicory! My mother used to eat it all the time when she was a child in Sicily.” But my mother’s murderous glance silenced the words before they could joyfully bubble out.
“This is for my rabbits. Very good food for rabbits. No good for you,” she said, in that thick Italian accent she reserves for this blog.
The cunning peasant never reveals his sources.
So, loaded down with plastic bags we made our way back to my mother’s kitchen where the chicory was triple washed in vinegar to remove any pesticides and then wilted in a pot of boiling water. A few minutes later, drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper, we ate a hearty lunch of these edible wild greens with some Italian bread to mop up the juices and a glass of my mother’s homemade wine. Well my mother ate the greens; I polished off a fair bit of the bread and wine. The greens themselves were incredibly bitter and knowing exactly where my food had come from brought a whole new perspective to the idea of eating local.